Purple Eagles wrench victory from Griffs’ grasp
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • January 28, 2013 @ 8:54am
Billy Baron’s teammates mobbed him in the corner by a small section of visiting Niagara students. Baron’s expression, a mixture of joy and shock, is tough to erase from memory. Kevin Bleeker, red-shirting in his second year at Canisius, leaped around like a little kid—a 7-foot tall little kid in a dress shirt, albeit—as the Griffins had seemingly pulled out a 68-66 buzzer-beating win over rival Niagara.
Then the pile of Griffs stood up, turned around and glanced at the scorer’s table. All three referees glanced at the monitor until one waved his arms horizontally, igniting a jubilant Niagara celebration and an uncomfortable victory dance from seasoned head coach Joe Mihalich. Baron’s half-court three-pointer was ruled still in his hand when the buzzer sounded and the scoreboard bordered a blazing red. Niagara won, 66-65, in dramatic fashion.
“I’m not going to lie, I kind of blacked out,” said Baron when explaining the final seconds. “I thought it was good, but I still haven’t seen it yet. I don’t think it should have come down to that [last shot]—I thought we had control, and I thought it was more us who lost the game than it was them who won the game.”
The final 11 seconds were truly a blur. Tied at 63, the Rhode Island transfer bulled down the right side of the lane and lofted a bank shot off the glass over an elevating Niagara defender, caressing his high-arcing shot softly off the window and through the hoop.
Baron became tangled up under the bucket, however, and the Purple Eagles rushed the ball down the floor, as point guard Juan’ya Green drew a help defender and found a wide-open Marvin Jordan in the left corner—the super-sub drained a three over the out-stretched arms of Canisius’ 6’10 center Jordan Heath with three seconds left.
The play looked oddly reminiscent of Hakim Warrick’s block of Michael Lee in the final seconds of the 2003 National Championship Game between Syracuse and Kansas, a swat that sealed the Orange’s victory. Unfortunately for Canisius, Heath wasn’t quite long enough to alter Jordan’s corner three.
“When [NU’s Jordan] released the ball, I could feel the ball go past my hand,” Jordan Heath said. “I was really close [to blocking the shot]. It’s tough. I turned and saw it go in, and I can’t describe that feeling.”
The scene was dramatic. Canisius fans, who’d just celebrated Baron’s acrobatic drive, stood in disbelief after Jordan’s trey, while a boisterous Niagara section bounced wildly. Chris Manhertz, the Griffs’ best player on Sunday, tossed the in-bounds pass in under his own basket—Canisius coach Jim Baron didn’t want to ruin the flow of the sequence with a timeout—and Billy Baron caught the ball on the right wing on his own side of mid-court, took two dribbles and hoisted a 30-footer that snapped the twine.
“I saw [Niagara] going crazy, and I can’t explain the feeling—it’s like a high to the ultimate low when you see them celebrating on your home court,” exhaled Baron. “It takes everything out of you to tell you the truth—it absolutely drains you.”
“I wasn’t sure if [the shot] came off in time, but it looked good from my view,” Manhertz, who paced the Griffs with a career-high 17 points and 15 rebounds, admitted. When the [officials] started to look at the tape, and I saw the other team celebrating, I had a gut feeling that it wasn’t meant to be, that it didn’t happen the way we wanted it to happen.”
The Griffins held a 10-point lead two minutes into the second half and still maintained a seven-point advantage with 9:19 left. Sophomore guard Juan’ya Green took over for Niagara down the stretch, totally enveloping the Canisius guards defensively and creating easy transition lay-ups for Jordan and Antoine Mason. Green was limited to nine points, but also contributed eight assists, five rebounds and five steals—three in the second half.
“These guys believe in themselves,” Mihalich said of his team. “We have reason to. We’ve found a way to win a lot now, and the guys have a composure about them. To be as young as we are and still have composure and confidence—we start three sophomore and a freshman, T.J. Cline is a freshman, and the only old guy is Devon White.”
It was “Marvin the Microwave” who stole the show for Mihalich’s club, however, as Jordan’s 23-point scoring outburst was unexpected.
Saddled with an injury earlier in the season, the junior entered the game shooting only 38% from the floor and averaging only eight points per tilt. Although his 3-for-12 three-point effort was far from spectacular Sunday, the reserve hit 6-for-6 inside the arc—many of them uncontested layups off of Canisius’ turnovers or long misses.
At the other end, Canisius failed to extend its second-half lead due to shooting woes from its acclaimed guard trio, Harold Washington, Baron and Isaac Sosa, who combined for 13-for-40 from the field (32.5%) and 7-for-24 from downtown (29%). Manhertz and Jordan Heath—and big man reserve Josiah Heath—rebounded efficiently (18 offensive rebounds as a team), but the outside shots didn’t drop for Jim Baron’s club, permitting a fast-tempo Niagara team to thrive in transition.
“We didn’t shoot our greatest today—we have to get in the gym and get up more shots,” Billy Baron admitted. “I know I couldn’t hit the backside of a barn today, but my teammates were picking me up.”
In the press conference after, the Canisius head coach pointed repeatedly to the free-throw disparity, as NU shots 16 free-throws to Canisius’ eight. In fairness, though, it was Niagara’s guards—Antoine Mason and Green in particular—who relentlessly attacked the rim, though Canisius’ bigs stood their ground in the post and almost never were rewarded with a charge.
“Us guards should have done a better job penetrating,” Billy Baron noted. “I know I got hit upside the head, but you’re not always going to get that call, and we should have done a better job of penetrating the match-up zone and getting to the hoop and taking the advantage of that junk defense they were playing.”
Against Rider on Friday, Canisius dealt with the Broncos’ strictly man-to-man defense, and for some reason, the Purple Eagles’ match-up zone caught the Griffins off-guard and created a hesitance to attack the middle of the 2-3. The presence of Niagara behemoth Devon White was certainly a factor, but Canisius continues to live-and-die by the three-point shot. You can determine whether or not that route is their best hope of victory.
All three Griff players—Manhertz, Jordan Heath and Baron—were level-headed in the press conference, and Manhertz showed that his sights were firmly set on the rematch on Feb. 10 at the Gallagher Center.
“The good thing is that we play them again, so there’s redemption,” Manhertz concluded.
(Photos courtesy of Cody Osborne from yesterday’s Niagara vs. Canisius game—full gallery here).